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Hermessence

Quite recently Hermès announced that nose Christine Nagel would be joining Jean-Claude Ellena as new nose to create new fragrances together for this legendary luxury brand. It was interesting news for many reasons. One is that Jean-Claude Ellena has been alone in his role for a long time (a decade) and it is hard to distinguish what is Hermès and what is master Ellena in an Hermès fragrance. Each fragrance is permeated by his artistry and endless choices down to the most detailed detail. Some were surprised by the choice. I am not familiar enough with Christine Nagels character as a nose to say anything about it other than that it is obvious that taking in a new nose to work with Ellena at Hermès must be a very particular process since everything about this brand is an homage to detail and perfection. So I am curious to discover what this new phase will bring and what Christine Nagel will bring to it. She is the nose behind many Jo Malone fragrances and Narcisco Rodriguez For Her so not at all a typical French haute parfumerie artist but more contemporary in her style.

Photo of Ellena and Nagel in The Cut.

Photo of Ellena and Nagel in The Cut.

The Cut recently did an interview with the new nose team that includes some really interesting statements. Direct and art-focused, just like the fragrances that monsieur Ellena makes.

I do recommend you to read the interview but let me share some highlights. The description of their collaboration is something many creative professionals can relate to and be inspired by. It’s great to hear a master such as Ellena describe their differences as an asset and then their generous way of working as a strength of their team work. They describe progressing together and surprising each other.

The discussion on luxury is also very interesting, this is really a core question in today’s market and zeitgeist I believe. We are becoming more globalized and more ethical consumers which leads to a decreasing interest in show-off luxury items in informed markets. Consumers want something else than a shortcut that mainly signals affluence, the “specialness” in luxury has changed. Jean-Claude Ellena says: “There is no scent that is luxurious. It’s what we do with it that makes it luxurious. Otherwise, how will we know when something is luxurious? The supreme luxury is to take time, and we have time at Hermès” and adds, “the thing that is important at Hermès is that it is the perfumer who decides whether the perfume will go on the market”. He concludes, “this is really the luxury, the freedom”. There is another perfume house characterized by this rule, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. A much anticipated launch can be delayed because the perfume is not ready. If this is considered luxurious working conditions for the perfumer, than how luxurious is it not for the person who wears the perfume to know that this is the level of dedication and ambition behind it? Does this mean that these perfumes are better? If I look to myself, definitely these two perfume houses take up more space in my perfume collection than other ones and I made many of those selections before knowing these facts behind them. Not surprising of course that Malle’s fragrance range includes two creations by Jean-Claude Ellena.

Jean-Claude Ellena's photo from his lab. Photo used in The Cut.

Jean-Claude Ellena’s photo from his lab. Photo used in The Cut.

For Hermès fans it should be interesting to read the description of Hermès as a day and afternoon brand. To be honest I had actually never thought of this aspect. When I think about it though I realize that in fact I never wear Ellena perfumes in the evening or night, it never felt right. Voyage, Bigarade give me fresh air and energy as I embark on a new day. Ambre Narguilé comfort for an afternoon that closes circles. There is one exception though, Poivre Samarcande, this one I love for a dinner with conversations about life and travel!

I will not reveal more, read the interview. It’s great. And then you will also find out what smelled of vanilla and mold.

For more Ellena I suggest this interview at Perfume Shrine and this one or even better, reading monsieur Ellena’s own books.

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I find it interesting that of all the Hermessence fragrances it seems quite apparent that Vetiver Tonka is the most popular one. Not so surprised that many would like it because it is really sublime, but rather perhaps that it makes so many different types of personalities feel really comfortable in it. Personally, I find it extra-ordinary so I am definitely one of the fans. I love having this fragrance on me. It is so elegant and so well-balanced in its presence. But not only that, it is also a fragrance with a lot of integrity and definitely has a little playful or mysterious twist. Maybe it is that perfect mix of extremely being comfortable but also unusual that makes it attractive so many of those who try it. It is not very famous though, outside perfumista circles.

Photo of Jean-Claude Ellena from WSJ

Some facts. Vetiver Tonka was created in 2004, and by Jean-Claude Ellena naturally. In an earlier post on vetiver, I mentioned that one of the things that make it so interesting is how different one vetiver is from another. (If you want an example, find a sample of Vetiver Tonka and one of Le Labo’s Vetiver and you will experience the versatility of vetiver). Not only because of what it is combined with and how it is used in the composition of a fragrance, but also depending on its origin. I find it a fascinating note, vetiver is to me full of contradiction and has a strange kind of depth, tension and coarseness that makes me think of traveling and in particular taking the taxi from the airport late at night in an unknown place and then driving through landscapes that smell of a cool sky but a hot ground. I have no idea exactly where this idea comes from, what specific situation or place but that’s how I feel about vetiver.

In Vetiver Tonka, after The Great Zest that introduces it, the vetiver is wrapped in a soft cashmere hue created by the tonka bean. Some describe the tonka as adding an almost gourmand aspect to this perfume but I don’t feel that at all. On my skin it never becomes really sweet. It just lingers playing its textures. And it’s just so very sophisticated. 

“Odor is a word, perfume is literature.” 
Jean-Claude Elena

I love a good challenge so I went from Vetiver Tonka to Rose Ikebana. A contrast, to say the least. (The attentive reader of this blog will note that my last post was not about Vetiver Tonka but about Poivre Samarcande. I am not ready with Vetiver Tonka yet, there is too much to think and say about it… To be continued.)

Hermessence is a shared line, but I do find it hard to imagine Rose Ikebana on a man’s skin. However, I realize that there are certainly male skins and male characters that would bring other aspects out of this fragrance than the ones that appear for me on me. This is a sad thing to confess, but I have yet to find a rose that gets along with me. I can see the sensuality that rose creates on others, both men and women, but on me it just feels awkward. I want the fresh dewy petal but I get soap. I want the soft velvety texture but I just feel Laura Ashley and English cottage. I want the iconic romance but I just get the cliché. But I am not prepared to give up. Rose Ikebana is not for me though. But I would love to meet someone who wears it in a way that makes the fragrance expose all its nuances.

But enough about me and back to the fragrance. Rose Ikebana has notes of rose tea, infusion of petals, peony, magnolia, pink peppercorn, zest of grapefruit, rhubarb and vanilla honey. Ellena described it saying that it “was created to reflect the touch of silk on the skin”. He wanted to capture the contrast of rose petal and crisp rhubarb, a very lovely idea. Ellena looked to the Japanese art of Ikebana, a minimalist way of arranging flowers, for structure and inspiration.

The liaison between the aesthetics of Ikebana and Ellena fragrances is obvious. The focus, the stringent presentation of notes.

Rose Ikebana has a lovely sheer innocence about it. It allows a kiss on the cheek but not more. It also refuses to present itself fully to me, so I am quite curious to hear someone else’s divergent thoughts. Also it makes me feel like reading ‘The Tale of Genji’.

As you know by now Jean-Claude Ellena is a very significant person in my life. 🙂 This man embodies so much of what fascinates me about perfume and my favorites among his creations are olfactory milestones in my life. A couple of weeks ago Chandler Burr talked about Jean-Claude Ellena at this year’s Pitti Fragranze. How much I wish I had been there. I now wait impatiently to hear Clayton’s reflections on What Men Should Smell Like. He was there.

JCE for president.

September has been a hectic month. I have great adventures going on. Some writing, a couple of little perfume development projects, an extremely inspiring signature scent consultation process going on and traveling. And then actually for most of the time – my day job at a PR company. 🙂 With all this adventurama the scents that accompany me become quite significant. So I have been wearing Neroli Portofino and Bigarade Concentrée at work to keep my mind alert, and Vaniglia del Madagascar from Farmacia SS Annunziata in weekends to relax. But now I need some new stimulation. So I have decided to spend a week with Hermès Hermessence line, one perfume per day. This kind of scent odyssey is an interesting way to discover a nose, in this case, Jean-Claude Ellena. The way the perfumes are composed, the clarity of the scent and the immaculate Ellenesque way of making strong notes feel light and undemanding.

I inaugurated this journey today with Poivre Samarcande, a perfume that is an excellent example precisely of Jean-Claude Ellena’s sensitive ability to play with the volume of notes if you permit the music reference. It starts out strong, not heavy, but strong with a direct presence that makes you very aware of the perfume you just applied. On me this last about an hour, not more. Then it just exhales, and lies down on your skin and the incense-like sharp woodiness becomes a soft spice veil. I imagine that lying in a big room a few blocks away from a spice market…a few hundred years ago…this is the scent that the transparent floating flowing curtains would reveal as the wind carried the air over the market to my house. But with only the nicest spices… I love this fragrance. It is so elegant and so clean. Slightly severe. No sweetness, no trying to please. Intellectual. And warm skin that smells of travel to places far away.

Samarkand, or Samarqand, is a city in Uzbekistan. It is on the Silk Road between China and the West. In 2001 it was added to UNESCO:s Wold Heritage List. Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.

The Registan in Samarqand.

Tomorrow is Rose Ikebana day.

PS: You can order your own Hermessence or other Jean-Claude Ellena creations for Hermès directly from Hermès via their beautiful web.

My plan is to have a few re-occuring topics in the blog, for example perfume searching tips and tricks, famous houses/brands and common – or just interesting – ingredients.

This time – tonka bean.

Dipteryx odorata (known as cumaru) is a flowering tree in from northern South America. Today, the main producers of the seeds are Venezuela and Nigeria. Kumarú is the word for tree in Tupi, in the region of French Guiana. The tonka bean is the seed from this tree. The beans are black, wrinkled and brown on the inside. They smell like vanilla similar to vanilla with a touch of almond, clove or cinnamon. The seed contains coumarin, which gives the seeds the great smell. The taste however, is bitter and eating coumarin can damage the liver.


Tonka beans are banned or subject to restrictions in several countries (for example use in food is forbidden in the US – probably because it affects coagulation). In others (like France), they are used in desserts as a vanilla substitute or to enhance the flavor in nuts or poppy, and in South America it seems it is used to create a specific aphrodisiac beverage. A google session will indicate that there seem to be a lot of chefs around the world who do like to experiment with this bean. And then they also appear in pipe tobacco and…in perfume.

The tonka bean has been considered to have both magical and medicinal powers. It has been used to cure depression, to boost the immune system, to cure snake bites and to treat coughs and rheumatism. The bean has been used for a long time for medicinal purposes among tribes in the Amazon. In occult traditions ceremonies that involve tonka beans are believed to help wishes come true. I also found recommendations to carry a bean in your pocket or bag for courage.

You will usually find tonka bean in an oriental fragrance, for example legendary Shalimar and Tonka Impériale (plus generally Guerlain), but also in fougères like previously mentioned Houbigant Fougère Royale. In Ellenas Hermessence series you cand find the fragrance Vetiver Tonka. If you are looking for more contemporary brands try Tobacco Vanille by Tom Ford or A Taste of Heaven from By Kilian. 

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Min plan är att ha några återkommande teman i bloggen, till exempel parfymletartips, berömda märken och intressanta ingredienser.

Den här gången – tonkaböna.

Dipteryx odorata (kallas också cumaru) är en blommande träd från norra Sydamerika. De största producenterna/odlarna är idag Venezuela och Nigeria. Kumarú är ordet för träd på Tupi, i området Franska Guyana. Tonkaböna är fröet från cumaru. Bönorna är svarta, skrynkliga och bruna på insidan. De luktar vanilj med inslag av mandel, kryddnejlika eller kanel. Fröet innehåller kumarin, som ger fröna den fina doften. Smaken är dock bitter och om man äter kumarin kan man skada levern.

Tonkabönor är förbjudna i flera länder (till exempel är användning i livsmedel förbjuden i USA – förmodligen eftersom kumarin påverkar koagulation). I andra länder (t.ex. Frankrike), används tonka böna i desserter som ett substitut för vanilj eller för att förstärka smaken i nötter eller vallmo. Det verkar finnas en hel del kockar runt om i världen som tycker om att experimentera med denna böna. Och så finns den också i piptobak och … i parfym.

Tonkabönan har ansetts ha både magiska och medicinska krafter. Den har använts för att bota depression, för att stärka immunförsvaret, för att bota ormbett och för att behandla hosta och reumatism. I ockulta traditioner finns ceremonier som involverar tonkabönor som tros hjälpa önskningar att gå i uppfyllelse. Jag har också hittat rekommendationer att bära en böna i fickan eller i väskan för mod.

Tonkaböna finns i nästan alla orientaliska dofter, till exempel legendariska Shalimar och Tonka Impériale (plus Guerlain generellt), men också i fougères t ex tidigare nämnda Houbigant Fougère Royale. I Ellenas Hermessence serie finns doften Vetiver Tonka. Om du söker bland mer moderna märken så testa t ex Tobacco Vanille av Tom Ford eller A Taste of Heaven från By Kilian.

Jean-Claude Ellena är Hermés husnäsa sen många år. Han har skapat de mest berömda Hermésdofterna bl a unisexserien Hermessence och skrivit ett antal böcker. Såklart är han född i en familj av parfymmänniskor och från Grasse. Så klart ser han ut så här…

Här finns en väldigt fin och intressant intervju med monsieur Ellena.

Hans böcker finns att beställa på Amazon.

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Jean-Claude Ellena is the nose of Hermés since many years. He has created the most famous Hermés fragrances including the unisex collection Hermessence and has published several books on perfumery. Of course, he is born into a family of perfumers in Grasse. Of course he looks like this…

Here is a very nice and interesting interview with Monsieur Ellena.

His books can be ordered on Amazon, here.